Andrew Tettenborn

Sunak’s crime crackdown won’t pay off for the Tories

The Tories have pledged to crack down on killers if they win re-election (Getty)

The Tories are pledging to reshape our homicide laws if they win re-election. There could, as in many US states, be first-degree murder for intentional killing, second-degree murder for manslaughter because of diminished responsibility or death arising from a deliberate wrong. Rishi Sunak is also promising to get tough on domestic abuse, with a minimum tariff for murder in the home. The crackdown will form a key part of the Conservative manifesto.

The plan is far from foolproof

You can understand Sunak’s thinking. The hospital order imposed on Nottingham triple killer Valdo Colocane earlier this year after he admitted manslaughter owing to diminished responsibility raised eyebrows among those who looked to the Tories as defenders of law and order. A pre-emptive occupation of the domestic abuse high ground before Labour can move in and fortify it also makes good electoral sense. Unfortunately, the Tories’ offering is still likely to be seen as less a coruscating firecracker than a damp squib, something the government at this stage can ill afford.

The plan is far from foolproof. Renaming parts of the crime of manslaughter as second-degree murder is little more than an exercise in rebranding. What’s more, even the calls for sharper sentencing are problematic. They leave the government wide open to attack for imposing yet more inmates on an overcrowded prison system close to collapse, especially if they include the likes of Colocane who will demand large resources to deal with and are perhaps actually better kept in secure hospitals. A riposte that a government should have been taking steps to stop such people from going on the rampage in the first place, rather than worrying about just where they are locked up after the event, sounds uncomfortably convincing.

Minimum tariffs for domestic abuse could also backfire. The aggressive bully who drunkenly beats his girlfriend to death is one thing. But what of the wife who overreacts to a thoroughly unpleasant and abusive husband by poisoning him? Would she be caught in the crackdown as well?

This whole episode suggests that the government is visibly lagging in the presentation stakes. To cut through successfully, an election message needs to do three things. First, it mustn’t look like a ploy from someone desperately looking for a proposal that might sell. Secondly, it must have something of the original and unpredictable about it; and thirdly, it must be fairly instantly understandable to the mass audience it is addressed to. Unfortunately, this latest offer from Sunak fails all three tests. 

Whatever its actual intent, the crime announcement comes across as little more than a calculated play for the votes of two demographics: the law-and-order enthusiasts, and the socially conscious middle-class electorate. The fact that these groups may agree in principle with what is said does not alter the fact that no-one likes to be patronised in this way.

What we have here will unfortunately be seen by very many floating voters as just more of the Tories banging on about law and order. As a result, it will either simply be ignored, or invite the comment that this is something where the party has pretty visibly failed to do much for 14 years, and that this new promise does not seem to be any more credible.

An obvious difficulty is that, for almost all voters apart from a few lawyers and others in the know, the technical distinctions drawn in English and American law between murder and manslaughter, first and second degree murder, and so on are frankly a closed book. There is an old joke asking what one calls a cross between the Godfather and a lawyer, the answer being someone who makes you an offer you can’t understand. Unfortunately this may ring worryingly true here. Speaking over the heads of most of those you want to vote for you doesn’t make for good politicking.

All this is a great pity. There are plenty of things the Tories can campaign on which would go straight through to those they need the support of. They could say that, of course we must do our best on climate change, but that if faced with a choice between Net Zero and the standard of living of the just-about-managing they are the only party that will choose the latter. For the Generation Z-ers they could promise to remove the barriers to building more houses and converting premises to residential use; for those in the gig economy, they they could protect workers from the imposition of zero hours contracts; and so on.

The Tories, in short, need to sharpen their act. They also should note something else. Reform, more amateur but with much closer links to what many of the rest of us are actually thinking, would never have chosen the ground Sunak has chosen to fight on – and with good reason. Farage’s party, seen by many as embodying the values the true values of conservatism, is now within a couple of points of them. It could well overhaul them. If it does, there could be a runaway effect, meaning that the 2024 election was not simply a defeat for the Conservatives, but a vote that condemns them to irrelevance for the foreseeable future.